Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Real Absinthe in Canada

UPDATE FEBRUARY 2013: The LCBO has been upgrading its absinthes. It is now possible to find Lucid, Vieux Pontarlier and, most recently, La Clandestine within the LCBO, or Vintages or, in the case of La Clandestine, Vintages Online! And the Absinthe Café in Ottawa (shown above) is probably the best stocked absinthe bar/restaurant anywhere in Canada!

Now back to the original post ...

Can this picture be true? Real absinthe? Available in Canada? Yes, but it's a long story and there is hopefully much more to come. To find out more, read on ...

I first went to check out the absinthe market in Canada in Spring 2006, visiting Nova Scotia and Ontario. I was very grateful to spend time with two absinthe lovers and artists/art lovers in Toronto, Scott and Lannie, who both took me round some bars. I saw there was obviousy a demand for real absinthe, but there was very little real absinthe in the market. Later I met with the LCBO, apparently the largest liquor customer in the world, and they told me that:

a) There was little demand for high quality absinthe (to this day, I don't know how they assess that since up to then and for some time afterwards they didn't stock what absinthe connoisseurs would consider to be real, high quality absinthe).

b) Any absinthe that they were to consider had to have less than 1 part per million of thujone in line with Health Canada "guidelines." Other Liquor Boards seem to have different interpretations of these "guidelines," ranging from no limit (BC) to the 1 ppm then quoted by LCBO, but now increased.

The highlight of my trip was when Scott and I had a private tasting of 10 or so different absinthes that I had brought in with me and I recall he loved the absinthes of the Clandestine distillery, a distillery I also knew and admired. At the time, however, I was not working directly with them.

Fast forward three years. I work on La Clandestine (and on other premium drinks) and we've just started to have our first real breakthroughs in Canada. Typically since I went to Nova Scotia and Ontario and have had talks with people in BC, our first success was in none of those provinces. It was in Montreal (that's in Quebec for any Americans!) and it's at the famous microbrewery pub, Dieu du Ciel. For me, it's perfect that a bar priding itself on hand-crafted smallscale beers should have been the first outlet in North America selling La Clandestine, hand-crafted in the birthplace of absinthe (Couvet, Switzerland). Many other bars in the USA are now also doing so, including the famous Please Don't Tell and L'Absinthe in New York. But that is another story ..

Stéphane Ostiguy, Président, Microbrasserie Dieu du ciel, reports excellent sales of La Clandestine, and has already re-ordered twice (bear with us, Stéphane!). Of course, his customers can only drink on the premises and cannot buy to take bottles home ... so hopefully this helps Stéphane keep his customers there for longer! Stéphane's story about absinthe is very interesting!

Montreal is just a few miles/kilometers away from the USA, so to all our friends in the USA, you now have one more good reason to vacation in Montreal this year. In fact, looking at the list of Stéphane's beers, including Aphrodisiac, Coal Woman and Hemp Smoke, I'd say you have many more reasons to go there!


More real absinthe is coming to Canada!

1. Frank Deiter's Taboo is now being sold on test in Quebec Liquor Board outlets. Ironically, Frank is probably going to find it easier to sell his popular Canadian absinthe in the USA, where he has just got label approval.

2. There is a very active group on Facebook, Canadians for Real Absinthe, that is leading the lobbying of the Liquor Boards .. and swapping a few horror stories on the way (Update: Facebook's changes to how Groups are set up removed more than 200 members recently).

3. Health Canada have now confirmed that they are reviewing their guidelines for thujone levels in absinthe. It may take a year to see the results of their review, but it does seem that they recognise that the rest of the world has a totally different perspective. Keep your fingers crossed!

4. And now back to explain the picture at the start of this article. The selection of absinthes stocked by Premier, Halifax, Nova Scotia. La Clandestine arrived in Nova Scotia end-November 2008. Just in time for a White Christmas! Since then Premier has expanded their portfolio and now has an interesting range of absinthes, including La Clandestine in two sizes (700 and 250 ml), Taboo 500 ml, and La Fée Parisian and Bohemian. Premier also stock a range of absinthe accessories, including

a fountain, spoons and glasses. With all that available, it's the nearest that Canadians have yet come to Absinthe Heaven. Not as good as the range available in many US stores, but better than that at any other Canadian liquor store currently.

5. And most exciting of all? The Quebec Liquor Board (S.A.Q.) is now stocking two Swiss absinthes, La Clandestine and Kübler, and La Clandestine can be found in more than 120 stores in Quebec NOW!
I am told that they considered 11 different absinthes from France, Switzerland and the Czech Republic, but eventually decided that high quality absinthes from the very birthplace of absinthe were the most appropriate for their consumers. The Facebook group (linked to in 2 above) tells a bit more of this interesting story!

Cheers ... et santé, Canada!

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